Following the riot in the Capitol on January 6th, a photo of Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) went viral – he was cleaning up trash strewn across the floor of the Capitol’s Rotunda. “It’s a room I love so much – it’s the heart of the Capitol, literally the heart of this country. It pained me so much to see it in this kind of condition,” Kim said. It’s a beautiful image, and Kim’s action provides a moving metaphor for redressing the country’s divisions and deep polarization: picking up the rhetorical trash in our public discourse. Today on the podcast Tim and Rick discuss the idea of “rhetorical trash” and the dangers of not addressing it. In part 1 of a 2-part discussion they highlight two practices for picking up the trash: truth-telling and not treating our rhetoric like New Year’s resolutions.
Rick Langer: Sexual addiction problems or other things like that, that we might have accountability groups for polarization addiction, where we just have people who are there to help call us out when we start to go too far, start to violate things and start to leave and effect rhetorical trash on the grounds of the Capitol.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California.
Rick Langer: And my name's Rick Langer. And I'm a professor here at Biola as well, in the biblical studies and theology department. And I'm also the director of the office of faith and learning. In today's topic we'd like to talk a little bit about the events that happened not long ago in our nation's Capitol. Along with millions of others of Americans, my soul, I know was churning with anguish as I watched the Capitol Building being desecrated last week or two weeks ago now. And these scenes I've seen them play out before, right? But they've always been in a foreign country. They've always been somewhere else.
Rick Langer: And here I'm looking at not some dark totalitarian regime or some failed democratic experiment, but I'm looking at our own Capitol Building. And it was just so different. The protestors were storming the most iconic building of American democracy, and I felt shock, despair, confusion, embarrassment, and more than anything else for me, I think I felt kind of angry and smould. Anger for the obvious reasons, smould because I felt totally impotent in terms of doing anything about the events that are unfolding.
Rick Langer: In fact, Tim and I have been talking about trying to do things that we can to help depolarize and all of that. And I'm kind of looking at the events going, "Well that didn't work, did it?" And so it just was a very, very difficult scene for me. And I felt kind of like curling up in the fetal position or else just letting off kind of a nice primal scream and the nice thing that happened in the midst of all of this, the one moment of hope that came was something that happened late that night.
Rick Langer: Andy Kim is a Congressman from New Jersey, and he was on his way home after casting his vote to certify the election. And the rotunda of the Capitol was just covered with trash. Pizza boxes, water bottles, discarded clothing, all these kinds of things. Trump flags, American flags strewn all across the floor.
Rick Langer: And his self report on this as he was walking he said, "I felt kind of strangely moved. I felt this heightened supercharged sense of patriotism. I love the Capitol and I'm honored to be there. This building is extraordinary in the rotunda in particular is just on inspiring and it really broke my heart and I just felt compelled to do something. What else could I do?" So here's what he did. A policeman is picking up the garbage and so he walked up to him, ask if he could have a garbage bag and help out.
Rick Langer: And so the policeman him a garbage bag, and he started helping pick up the trash. In fact, we wouldn't have even known this had happened if one of his colleagues hadn't walked by and seen him crawling under a bench. And he's like, "Andy, what's going on?" And he comes out and he realized he's picking up the trash and that's how the whole story actually came out.
Rick Langer: So that was a beautiful image to me. And I've spent a lot of the last three years, Tim and I have kind of writing and speaking to students in churches, in schools and community groups about polarization in our public discourse. We're not famous. We're not really out on the lecture circuit. I just take the opportunities I get to advocate for generalists and respect when we talk about contentious issues.
Rick Langer: And I suppose part of that was part of why I was particularly angry because as I mentioned, I just felt like all that had been unsuccessful. But here's the punchline, small efforts are still efforts. So inspired by Congressman Kim, I've decided that we should pick up our rhetorical trash bags and do some cleanup work in the places where we actually live and talk to other people.
Rick Langer: I'm going to do my best to clean up the conversations which I'm apart. And so I just thought, we'd take some time on this podcast to identify some key bits of rhetorical trash that we may want to police from our conversation with spaces. How does that sound Tim?
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, Rick, what a great metaphor of what Kim did picking up the trash around the Capitol. And I agree with you, it felt like something had profoundly changed when I saw those images. You and I have a new book out called Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church, and we're doing radio interviews. And I was doing a radio interview by myself and I made a comment and immediately corrected myself. And I thought to myself, "Boy times have changed." I said this, "Listen, instability is a problem in our country, but it's not like we're killing each other over it." And I stopped literally in the interview and said, "Wow, do I need to change that?" Because, people died at the Capitol.
Rick Langer: Yeah, it was that kind of a turning point sort of a moment in our country's consciousness.
Tim Muehlhoff: So I love your idea, Rick, we've talked about this, I love the idea of identifying and picking up our rhetorical trash. And Kim serve as a great metaphor on his hands and knees, humility, looking for trash and picking it up and throwing it away. What a great metaphor. So let's talk about rhetorical trash and the dangers of not addressing it.
Rick Langer: All right. Great. So let me first bit of rhetorical trash that I think needs to be policed is speaking words of falsehood. And for some of you, the next few things I say will probably be hard to hear. So let me just ask you to please stay with me.
Rick Langer: As I was watching these events unfolded the Capitol, I was surprised to talk to friends and read social media posts that were saying that these protestors were actually being invited across the barricades. There was no violence being done. They were actually alternatively leftwing radicals and they were co-opting a peaceful protest by supporters of Donald Trump. And let me just say they were not. Let me simply quote, not from anything other than the resignation letters of two of President Trump's cabinet members. First Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, Mitch McConnell's wife.
Rick Langer: So these are two people who have been incredibly long-term vocal, visible supporters of Donald Trump. Her resignation letter read yesterday, "Our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable set of events as supporters of the president stormed the Capitol Building, following a rally that he addressed. As I'm sure is the case with many of you, it has deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside." And she goes on to explain more of this. Even more explicit, Betsy DeVos secretary of education, again, these are two of the few cabinet members who've been with him the entire four years of his presidency.
Rick Langer: She writes, "We should be highlighting and celebrating your administration's many accomplishments on behalf of the American people, instead we're left to clean up the mess caused by violent protestors, overrunning the U.S Capitol in an attempt to undermine the people's business. That behavior was unconscionable for our country." And there is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on that situation. And that is an inflection point for me. And the point here is that these descriptions are not coming from some friend who was at the protest and in Washington really knows what happened. These aren't from the liberal press.
Rick Langer: These are the words of two people who sat on the president's cabinet for four years. And it's clear to them that the president bears no small measure responsibility for these events.
Rick Langer: Now, having said that, this is where the challenge of speaking the truth comes in. It's easy to speak the truth when it's convenient, our character is tested when we must face inconvenient truths. In this case, I'll speak for me personally, I must face the truth of the fact that I have been basically a lifelong Republican. Whether I like it or not, these events were carried out by members of my political tribe. I can think of so many ways I could distance myself from the perpetrators of these events, but I'm going to resist that temptation and simply say, "I'm ashamed of these events, and of my political parties complicit in it." It's a simple truth that needs to be spoken in the face of false. This is partly me in my tribe.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, Rick, I love that. So speaking the truth is predicated on finding the truth. And this is where we have a hard time in today's social media saturated news cycles. So we're going to have to roll up our sleeves and make sure that we're hearing different voices so that we're not just in our own, in-group believing new sources that we're most comfortable with. So I do this assignment record with my students. They take two weeks, they watch CNN one night and they watch Fox News the next night.
Rick Langer: Oh, yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: And then they come back and I asked them questions. How's the Coronavirus doing in our country? How's President Trump's response to it, right? All these different things. And the students literally laugh because they say, "Well, it all depends. If you go to CNN, he's doing horrible, and we're a mass and he's complicit in all the deaths of Americans through COVID, you go to Fox, he's done great things and should be applauded for his response."
Tim Muehlhoff: So Rick speaking, the truth is great, but we're going to have to make sure that we're allowing people to speak into what we consider the truth. You and I are big fans of a website called AllSides.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: We're actually going to be taking part in a really cool conversation that they're doing that'd be another podcast. But AllSides gives you what they identify, which is interesting, they identify as the left, the center and the right, and they'll give you articles on an event like the Capitol attack, and they'll give you the left's perspective, the center's perspective and the right's perspective.
Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's really helpful to sit and listen to three different voices and ask which one proved their case the best using data survey and all those different kinds of things. So I wish truth telling was a little bit easier and all of us fall into the trap of saying, "Truth telling is not difficult at all, and I got the truth via this new source."
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: It's going to have to be more complicated than that.
Rick Langer: And that's a good word, Tim. It was interesting for me as I was writing and thinking about some of these issues and I'd read a news blurb talking about one of the cabinet secretaries resignations. And I was like, my first thought when I saw the report was I wonder what the person actually said. And so here's what I did. I dug around and found a PDF of the two resignation letters.
Rick Langer: So what I quoted was not from a new source at all, it was from a PDF of the actual resignation letters. So that is kind of handy. I'm pretty confident that, that's actually what these two cabinet secretary said. That said, so many events we have do not have the equivalent of a PDF of the actual document.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: And so you end up with videotape, one person's pointing the camera one way and one the other, and that becomes very difficult. But none of this changes the fact that sometimes truths or inconvenient truth, some of the people I stopped pushing back a bit because, that were simply saying, "That's just not the kind of thing that we do."
Rick Langer: And I'd love to be able to make it that simple, but the dividing line between good and evil, between losing control and keeping control between being gracious and being cynical and that dividing line does not run between groups, but it runs through every human heart.
Rick Langer: And I think most of us, well to go back to Andy Kim's metaphor, we perhaps, if we think that we would never go too far or say things you might regret, we might need to crawl under some benches within our soul and to see if there's still some trash lurking under there that needs to be pulled out.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And while you're under that bench doing so....
Rick Langer: No, while you're under that bench.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, thank you, also do some truth searching under that bench. Ask the hard question, "Why do I believe I'm right on this issue? What is it that is justifying my belief when it comes to a political issue, a social issue, a theological issue. Am I reading widely? Am I allowing diverse perspectives to challenge what I think is right." I went to a reformed seminary and most of my education is from a reform seminary. And so it was really good to read corner evidence of what I believe. I'm not reformed, but when you know that there's giants out there like Luther, Owen, Calvin, it causes a little bit of humility.
Tim Muehlhoff: So I'm concerned with people who only read in one stream, they watch one thing. So it's good for us we're under that soul searching bench to say, "Hey, I need to probably stop and ask the hard question. Am I right on this issue? And what has given me the confidence to do that?" So I love this metaphor. And let me add one. If we're going to really pick up our rhetorical trash, we can't treat it like a new year's resolution. I mean, we're far enough in January that I'd hate to ask the question, how many of our resolutions have already fallen by the wayside?
Tim Muehlhoff: That elliptical machine brand new is now closed or hanging overhead. So this is not new a call to pick up our rhetorical trash. This has actually been around for a long time. Let me go back to January 8th, 2011, U.S Representative, Gabby Gifford and 18 others were shot during a meeting in a supermarket parking lot in Arizona, six died. Gifford was shot in the head at point blank. And the man was arrested and it sparked a huge conversation about harsh rhetoric, back in 2011. Time Magazine came out with a cover issue of the shooter and the headline was gun, rhetoric and hatred. So they were already calling in 2011, have we gone too far? Keith Olbermann did a segment when he had his own show on NBC, did a segment called The Worst Person in the World.
Tim Muehlhoff: And he was so moved in 2011 that he publicly said, "I'm getting rid of the segment. It was kind of done in tongue-in-cheek. But if I'm adding to the rhetorical rhetoric that led to the shooting of Gabby Gifford, then I repent of it." Now, Harvard did a study since 2011, what's been our response to the Gabby Gifford shooting and tragically Harvard reported that since 2011 mass shootings have tripled in our country. So Rick, I simply say picking up rhetorical trash in light of the Capitol, it can't be just another new year's resolution that we're done when it comes to February.
Rick Langer: Yeah. It's interesting that about Keith Olbermann, I didn't know that about what he did in 2011. We were speaking this fall and I was speaking at a church event and, Tim and I had a fertile in easy fall in terms of finding sermon and talk illustrations about bad rhetoric, because it was an extremely inflamed climate. Interesting thing, I remember speaking at one of the churches I spoke at, and it was a video clip from Keith Olbermann, just going over the top with rage against Donald Trump. It was some of the most... in fact, I almost felt awkward even showing it.
Tim Muehlhoff: This fall, you're talking about this fall?
Rick Langer: This fall.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Rick Langer: So here we are 10 years later, and back to this issue of, do we keep the resolutions and please don't hear me saying Keith, over into somehow magically unique in this. It just struck me when you said that we had bumped into that. We had all kinds of illustrators.
Rick Langer: We had Donald Trump and Joseph Biden going back and forth against each other in the presidential debate, that was a violation of any normal balance of rhetorical balance. But these are the things that I think you're just dead right. It's super hard to maintain it. And we're talking about developing a spiritual discipline of soul and the fact that it feels unnatural or difficult, we were like, "Right, exactly." But nonetheless, that needs to happen.
Tim Muehlhoff: And new year's resolutions are created based on different contexts. So let's take weight loss. I mean, all of us have probably done the, I got to lose 10 pounds new year's resolution because our jeans are too tight or you saw a Christmas photograph of yourself? And you're like, "No way, do I look like that, so I'm going to lose 10 pounds." By the way, that's a perfectly good motivation to lose 10 pounds.
Tim Muehlhoff: But one time when I was the most successful is when a friend came to me who was overweight and was having heart palpitations and went to his doctor. And his doctor said, "Listen, dude, you need to lose 30 pounds, because this isn't a matter of your pants being tight, this is unhealthy for you, and it can have dire consequences." So that friend came to me and said, "Would you join me in this?"
Tim Muehlhoff: And Rick that felt different. This was a person's health. And even the way the doctor framed it, a life and death issue, you need to lose 30 pounds. I think the Capitol is like the heart condition. This isn't just so that we can feel better as Americans, this is literally life and death. The people who lost their lives on the Capitol that day tragically. So as Americans, when we're talking about addressing our trash, a rhetorical trash, it's not that our genes can feel better, it's that people's lives are literally at stake if we don't clean up this trash.
Rick Langer: That is a great example of the challenge of implementing this. And I'm thinking with just what we're talking about here with the events with the Capitol and the things that are continuing to happen to our country and say, "Hey, we are at that point as a country, who is a friend that we could get together," maybe a person on the other side, maybe persons more on the same side, but say that we could help one another, in the military context they call it policing the grounds, picking up the trash, but that we could do that for each other.
Rick Langer: That as we talk about things, we could ask, "What news source did he get that from? Have you read balancing sources?" That we could just have that and realize, look the same way I hear people doing accountability groups for sexual addiction problems or other things like that, that we might have accountability groups for polarization addiction, where we just have people who are there to help call us out when we start to go too far, start to violate things and start to leave and effect rhetorical trash on the grounds of the Capitol.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and we're going to practice what we preach Rick. One of the commitments that we're going to do on the Winsome Conviction Podcast is we're not just going to bring in people that we agree with. We have specifically going to invite guests in that we really disagree with theologically, politically, socially, and we want to have these kind of conversations.
Tim Muehlhoff: So when you listen to a person on our podcast, don't always assume that we're agreeing with their perspective, right? This is not endorsed by Biola University. And I think that would be pretty obvious when we're talking to that person, but we are absolutely committed to breaking out of the evangelical conservative bubble.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we're going to bring people in that you might listen to and go, "Man, that made me uncomfortable." And I want to tell you, it probably is going to make me and Rick uncomfortable, but we feel like we need to engage that now is the time to do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, I can't believe how quickly time has gone by this is such an important topic. I say, we've got a bunch more things to talk about, picking up rhetorical trash. So let's do another segment on this. So why don't you wrap us up and we'll make this a part two, because there's some other things I think we want to get to.
Rick Langer: So with that said, then thanks so much for joining us on this episode, the Winsome Conviction Podcasts, we'd love to have you become a regular listener by subscribing at Spotify or Apple Podcasts or wherever it is that you like to get your podcasts. And we also encourage you to check out the Winsome Conviction website.
Rick Langer: It's a great place for resource, articles, information on cultivating convictions and holding them deeply, but conversing with other people in ways that honor the differences instead of dividing the community. That's really what we're all about here. So thanks for joining us.